Born Lathen John Adams on January 5, 1932, in New Orleans, LA; died on September 14, 1998, in Baton Rouge, LA; wife, Judy Adams.

After Johnny Adams had his first local hit in 1959, he remained a fixture of music in New Orleans, Louisiana, for the rest of his life. With an expressive voice and a range that included the beautiful falsetto that led a local disc jockey to call him "the Tan Canary," Adams sang several styles with ease. Starting as a gospel singer, he later expanded his range to include blues, soul, county, and jazz. He often seemed on the verge of breaking out as a national star, but problems with record companies held him back. Still, Adams became a legend in New Orleans, and his vocal style influenced singers working in a wide range of music, from the soulful Aaron Neville to rocker Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish. Upon his death in 1998, the outpouring of tributes from the music industry and the press revealed the stature that Adams had achieved among his peers.

Born on January 5, 1932, in New Orleans, Adams was the oldest in a family of ten children. He dropped out of school at the age of 15 and began singing in gospel groups. His talent soon made him the lead singer in these groups, although he told Scott Aiges of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "[M]y voice was so loud that it couldn't even blend with the others. They said, 'You have to sing lead.'" But singing in the bathtub, not on stage, gave Adams his first opportunity to record as a solo act. He lived downstairs from songwriter Dorothy Labostrie, who decided she wanted him to sing one of her songs after hearing Adams' rendition of "Precious Lord" through her floor. The 1959 single, "I Won't Cry," produced by a young Mac Rebennack, who would later claim his singing fame as Dr. John, became a local hit.

This promising start, though, did not launch Adams to stardom. Years later, Adams would remember that Joe Ruffino, the owner of Ric Records for which Adams recorded, held up national distribution of the singles. According to Tony Russell of the Guardian, Adams said, "I believe we could have gone places with 'I Won't Cry' if Ruffino would have helped and cooperated with major companies." Still, Adams continued to record with Ric, gaining national attention with "A Losing Battle," written by Rebenack, which made the rhythm and blues charts in 1962.

Still, the stories persisted that Ruffino kept holding Adams back. Reports circulated that Barry Gordy, Jr. wanted to sign Adams to his Motown label after the success of "A Losing Battle," but that no deal occurred because Ruffino threatened to sue. Thus, Adams continued to record for Ric until 1968, when he changed labels and produced his largest commercial success. Working with producer Shelby Singleton for SSS Records, Adams turned his vocal skills to a blend of country and soul. His 1968 cover of the country standard "Release Me" became a hit, and 1969's "Reconsider Me" also made the top ten on the rhythm and blues charts. Bill Dahl of All Music Guideremarked on the passion in Adams' performance on "Reconsider Me": "[H]e swoops effortlessly up to a death-defying falsetto range to drive his anguished message home with fervor."

Once again, though, this glimpse of a larger audience did not lead Adams to stardom. While he remained a New Orleans fixture throughout the 1970s, the rest of the world remained largely unaware of him. Even though he signed for a brief stint with a major national record label, Atlantic Records, the collaboration did not lead to much success. Adams himself believed part of the problem lay with the record companies trying to limit his range of music. In an interview recounted in the Guardian, Adams said, "In the past, record companies tried to pigeonhole me as a country singer or a ballad singer. But I consider myself able to do it all. Hell, I think I could sing bluegrass if I had to."

Finally in 1984, Adams found a record company and a producer with whom he could have a fruitful relationship. He began working with Scott Billington of Rounder Records, a collaboration that would last for the rest of Adams' career. Billington recognized that Adams' talent extended to a wide range of musical styles. As Tom Surowicz pointed out in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "Adams could sing sophisticated jazz. He could sing sentimental pop, or stirring gospel. He had precious few peers when tackling Southern deep-soul classics. And on the right night, with the right band, he all but owned the blues."

From the Heart,released in 1984, started the upswing for Adams' career. A few subsequent albums would be devoted to the works of a single songwriter, such as Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus: The Real Me in 1991. Others showcased his talents at exploring specific genres, such as the jazz-oriented Good Morning Heartache in 1993 and One Foot in the Blues in 1996, which Kenny Mathieson of the Scotsman claimed, "summed up his philosophy as well as any--the blues were always present in his work, but that second foot could be planted in any of several different styles." Along with gaining more control over the material he recorded, Adams also became more well-known outside New Orleans after beginning his work with Billington. He began to tour nationally and even internationally as more people realized the power of his voice and range of styles.

Although he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, Adams went into the studio to record his final album, Man of My Word, released in 1998. The sessions were difficult for Adams. Billington told Keith Spera of the New Orleans Times-Picayune,"It's a miracle it was finished. I'm still moved to tears when I listen to his vocal performances on that record." Although he was suffering, Adams put together a strong album. Surowicz wrote, "[I]t lives up to Adams mighty legacy, and easily rates as one of the best roots R&B outings of the year."

Adams succumbed to the cancer and died on September 14, 1998, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He continued to receive more recognition for his work after death. In 1999 he received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm-and-Blues Foundation. Then in 2000, Rounder issued an album sampling the best of his work. Called There Is Always One More Time, it featured not only tracks from Adams' previous albums, but also some collaborations with other performers. Reviewer Britt Robson of the Washington Post summed up Adams' career by saying that the album "documents an artist consistently in his prime." For almost 40 years, Adams moved audiences with a stunning voice that could grace any genre he chose.

by Lloyd Hemingway

Johnny Adams's Career

Left school and began singing career at age 15; debut single, "I Won't Cry," 1959; had first national hit with "Release Me," 1968; continued performing in and around New Orleans, 1970s; signed with Rounder Records, 1984; recorded last album, Man of My Word, 1998.

Johnny Adams's Awards

Pioneer Award, Rhythm-and-Blues Foundation, 1999.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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